Don Noble
9:57 am
Mon March 8, 2004

The Ocean Was Salt

Loretta Cobb of Montevallo has watched her husband, Bill, write fiction for the last thirty years, so it's no surprise that after her retirement as Director of the Writing Center there, she took up short story writing herself. Her first collection, The Ocean Was Salt, has now been published, and the ten stories are varied and pleasing.

The Ocean Was Salt

Loretta Cobb of Montevallo has watched her husband, Bill, write fiction for the last thirty years, so it's no surprise that after her retirement as Director of the Writing Center there, she took up short story writing herself. Her first collection, The Ocean Was Salt, has now been published, and the ten stories are varied and pleasing.

As one might expect, these stories are set in Alabama, in Montevallo and Gulf Shores. Several have as protagonists middle-aged women, and health concerns play a large part in these stories.

One of the best of these is "Seeing It Through," which will resonate with many a reader. The story begins, "I've always been a good-natured, easygoing woman, but I don't take no crap either. As long as things are rocking along smoothly, I'm easy to get along with, but my friends and my husband Hooty know better than to cross me."

Thelma Sims is feeling poorly. Sometimes she feels cold and sometimes hot, and often she is without her normal energy. She is rightly worried that she may have cancer of some kind and needs tests. What ensues is horrible and funny.

Her doctor keeps ignoring her, putting her off, losing her urine sample, in short being as inconsiderate as one could possibly imagine. So, finally, angry and exasperated, Thelma and Hooty shoot him. Some physicians may blanch when they read this story, but I have heard it read aloud and many in the audience cheered.

In the story "And the Word Was God," one is reminded of Katherine Ann Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." The story is told from Mama's point of view, and Mama is dying. In fact, part of the story is told after Mama is dead. She has grown weaker, become confused, suffered the indignities of her final illness, and died, but she continues to narrate.

Several stories have women less ill, but still hurt or angry. In "Before We Crawled to Tears," Mama is hurt because her idiot husband ogles a strange woman at the beach. In "That Fall," where the characters are younger, the idiot husband has sex with the babysitter, who is a cheerleader at the local college.

In "Things Visible and Invisible," Damrell, an Alabama wife, is recovering from a mastectomy and visiting her city cousin in New York. Inspired by Manhattan and several Manhattans, the two women bring home a stranger and the three "carry on," one might say. Somehow, though, rather than just being an unfaithful spouse story, it is oddly life-affirming. The terror of cancer, the fear of death, her seeking after the vital experience, all seem to make sense.

An exception to the pattern of female protagonists, and perhaps the best story in the collection, is "Feeling Salty." Here a divorced father, Nick, has custody of his son, Tony, for a month. The relationship between father and teenage son is always tricky. This one is explosive. They quarrel. They misunderstand each other. Tony is much more knowledgeable and mature than Nick believes, but is still an angry brat. Out of their more or less mutual determination to have a relationship, they manage, a little.

"Belle's Balls," which is a not a hermaphroditic tale of Dixie in spite of the title, concerns the college president's wife, Belle, who gives big official parties. This is very much an insider story and will be relished by academics, especially. There is a visiting writer, a handsome footloose single faculty member, jealousy, ambition, political tension, sexual tension. In short, life on campus.

Loretta Cobb is a relative beginner in the short story game, but she is certainly knowledgeable about domestic relations and fearless in writing about sex and death, and there is every reason to believe that she will become more technically polished. I look forward to her next collection.

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